Mile High City’s urban cool makes Neil Sowerby quite light-headed
I AM eating one of those bahn mi Vietnamese baguettes, with a dip of pho broth on the side. The spice goes surprisingly well with a Denver Pale Ale from Hogshead brewery – a neighbourhood homage to English cask beer. Soundtrack is the Black Keys in glam stomp mode; staff serving sushi, pizza and Venezuelan arepas shimmy along to it. In the distance Denver’s soaring skyline shimmers.
The ‘Mile High City’ apparently gets 300 days of sunshine a year and today is living up to the boast. My vantage point is the rooftop terrace of collective eaterie Avanti F&B, a two level shipping container with half a dozen global food vendors plus bars dispensing a riot of delicious, eclectic beers.
At Biker Jim's Alaskan Reindeer was the recommended dog of choice but I decided Pheasant and Rattlesnake was the way to go with an El Diablo topping. Tastes of chicken naturally, not to be hissed at
Naturally, for this is Denver, US capital of craft brewing, home to more than 100 breweries, with a rumoured further 15 by the end of 2017, and to the annual Great American Beer Festival (this year October 5-7). That’s sold-out but is only one excuse among many to visit this beguiling city, served by a new direct service from London Heathrow from September 16 – run by Norwegian Airlines.
After my bahn mi it’s all I can do not to order another pint, a Diebolt Chin Chin de Diable Belgian Golden Strong Ale perhaps or a wild-fermented Crooked Stave Hop Savant, both local riffs on artisan hoppiness.
Heaven knows I’m thirsty enough after rambling around Denver’s hip and hilly Highlands district with its roster of fine eating places and bars – the likes of Roots Down, Linger, The Ale House, Williams & Graham and the veteran Beat Writers’ hang-out, My Brother’s Bar (about all of which, later). Fine old houses, too, and a leafiness to it.
This is a city for walking. Highlands is west of the South Platte River, easily reached via the pedestrian Millennium Bridge and the revived Riverfront parks from my base in LoDo (Lower Downtown). How they love these aspirational acronyms – RiNo, which I always took for ‘Republican In Name Only’, here means the River North Art District, an urban wasteland now on the up and a hub for the craft brewing and leftfield creativity that define contemporary Denver.
LoDo too is a story of resurgence, entire blocks of brick warehouses and stables left to rot rediscovered and turned into apartments, restaurants and the like without losing their soul. Blink and you could be in that old Rocky Mountains frontier town with a whole posse of mavericks passing through – Wyatt Earp, Butch Cassidy, Billy the Kid and Buffalo Bill (who is buried up on Lookout Mountain on the outskirts of town).
The railroad was mighty important for the development of the Wild West; one cherishable legacy in Denver is LoDo’s Union Station, a 1914 Beaux Arts masterpiece that only a few years ago was a shabby drifters’ haunt under threat of being torn down. Enter an urban conservationist called Dana Crawford, who energised its transformation into one of America’s coolest destinations, complete with its own 112 room Crawford Hotel named in her honour.
I was lucky enough to stay there; walk out of my second floor room and I gazed down from the landing on its ornate centrepiece, the sweeping Great Hall. White and gilt, glistening chandeliers for when the light fades through its vast arched windows, it’s quite glorious.
Down in the lift, avoiding the temptations of the Cooper indoor cocktail terrace, and I was spoilt for choice by the array of food and drink outlets and boutique shopping, including a tiny branch of the city’s legendary Tattered Cover bookstore and Snooze, flagship of a renowned retro brunch chain (with cocktails and ancho chilli wheat beer shandies for when the smoothies pall). Next door Mercantile switches from daytime deli to casual fine dining each evening.
My main focus was on the Terminal Bar, in the converted ticket office which occupies a whole side of the ground floor. What’s not to like about 30 rotating regional beers on tap and a smart Colorado spirits list?
Having got the taste, I left this heavenly haunt in quest of the catalyst of Denver’s craft beer revolution – The Wynkoop Brewpub on the street of that name. To get there it’s just a short walk across the station plaza, home to a growers-only farmer’s market every Saturday (Union Station even has its own beehives on the roof and a farm to table ethos governs much of the city’s eating habits).
Denver mayor now Colorado governor John Hickenlooper founded the brewery/bar back in 1988, kickstarting the rebirth of the whole area. It has a real pub feel with pool, darts, telly sports and a hearty food menu.
It’s a must-visit destination, but the axis of brewing has shifted northwards to RiNo, a still edgy district that over the last decade has been colonised by artists, hipster nesters and cutting edge brewers. This transformation has now gone into overdrive, with the infrastructure still a work in progress as we discovered on our bumpy tuk tuk ride from Downtown.
What we discovered was majorly exciting. The hub is The Source, an 1880s brick foundry complex that has been converted spectacularly into an artisan food market.
A short walk away are several excellent brewery taps – Zach Rabun’s Mockery probably the best, its name a rebuttal of the constricting German Reinheitsgebot ‘pure beer’ rules, thus emphasising their own innovative brewing (Mukduk, a summery cucumber Berliner Weisse beer quite breathtaking); Great Divide next door, motto ‘bold characters’, is a bigger concern, a pioneer in the wake of Wynkoop with their Yeti Imperial Stout range almost a brand within their brand and their brewery tours a lively introduction to the brewing process; and Ratio Beerworks with a delicious range to be sampled in their large, functional, dog-friendly taproom, an offbeat rock venue (the touring Wilco played a private set there while I was in town).
Even more exciting was a tasting was in Source’s industrial chic food hall itself, just past the unique combo of florists and butcher’s shop, at the Crooked Stave Artisan Beer Project brewtap. Our server lined up 16 samples of the sour beers they specialise in – owner Chad Yakobson completed his master’s in Edinburgh in these complex ales fermented with wild yeast. Blueberries and cherries and barrel ageing all strove for attention with hardly a dud down the line, making for the most memorable beer moment of our visit.
Further competition is on the way with two of Colorado’s big players arriving shortly from Fort Collins to brew and run taprooms in RiNo, too – Odell and New Belgium, the latter set to open a 100-room hotel and barrel store next to The Source. Proof of how important beer tourism is to the town, which is scattered with breweries and their taps. Down in boho South Broadway I took in two which combine fermentation and heavy metal head-banging – TRVE with its occult dungeon trappings and Black Sky, whose bar – suddenly making me homesick – sports a Trooper beer banner in homage to the bitter curated by Bruce Dickinson for Robinson’s of Stockport. Booze loving bookworms have their own Fiction Beer Company, which I never got to, sampling brews inspired by literature from a bar created from stacked books. Anyone for Dreamer IPA, whose muse is the last line of Rudyard Kipling’s The Fairies’ Siege?
But, of course, this is just the tip of the all-year-round ‘Aleberg’ that culminates in the Great American Beer Festival in the Convention Center on 14th Street – hard to miss because of the 40ft high blue bear leaning into it, a much-loved statue by a local artist, which is actually called ‘I See What You Mean’. Such a very Denver icon.
So if your idea of heaven strays beyond brewery visits…
Here are a few places to eat, perhaps buy a hat or even a stash of legal marijuana.
A bit of a cheat this, staying with beer. The third Downtown restaurant venture from Jennifer Jasinksi and Beth Gruich boasts an awesome beer list to complement its gourmet re-evaluation of beer-friendly dishes – braised bone marrow, hog chops, poutines, po’ bpys, pad thai pig’s ears and the like. My companion kept us to powerful Double IPAs, so our tavernlike surroundings, the original 1183 brickwork stripped down, soon blurred into one hoppy haze.
A contender for best restaurant in a city devoted to casual dining, this Francophile project from Jasinki-Gruich is a terrific mix of stylish surroundings, slick service and some imaginative Mediterranean-inspired food. Fittingly it’s in pedestrianised Latimer Square, the swishest stretch of bars and restaurants in the city.
This purveyor of extreme fillings and biker diner vibes, is situated in edgier territory a 10 minute walk from Rioja. Alaskan Reindeer was the recommended dog of choice but I decided Pheasant and Rattlesnake was the way to go with an El Diablo topping. Tastes of chicken naturally, not to be hissed at.
Civic Center EATS food trucks
Throughout the summer from Tuesday to Thursday, from 11am-2pm, it’s meals on wheels time in the rather grand public park sandwiched between the Capitol, the mInt and the rather wonderful Denver Art Museum. From a melting pot of global street food on offer I went Indian. My spinach paneer lacked genuine chilli heat, but it was lovely to sit out in the Denver sun with the lunchtime crowd.
I went up 20th Street to breathe in the atmosphere from Coors Field ballpark on a Colorado Rockies match night and maybe grab a beer from the Jagged Mountain brewtap (not a Coors, mind, poor, thin stuff from the world’s biggest brewing facility just outside Denver). I was diverted, though, to Ophelia’s Soapbox, a former bordello that wryly styles itself as a ‘gastro-brothel’ thanks to its boudoir-style decor across several levels, encompassing an eclectic mix of cocktails and mostly organic dishes, live music and a dancefloor.
This bar and grill inside The Source provided the beef brisket and crispy fried pickle ballast for my assault on those 16 sours. Rustic yet refined sums up chef Steven Redzikowski’s eclectic New American cooking on the oak-fired oven. Good cocktails and beer, too.
A younger version of The Source – a gourmet food emporium with a community feel covering most bases and also a good place to lunch and, of course, drink craft beer, which we did. Lovely conversion of a bright and airy 1920s building, once a car showroom.
Another (more leftfield) conversion in the Highlands – the old Olinger’s mortuary transformed into a global small plate restaurant with a panoramic rooftop bar. The ‘O’ in the neon Olinger sign is extinguished at night; hence the laid-back name Linger.
Also in the Highlands classic Prohibition-style speakeasy the guise of a bookstore. A cosy escape, pull up a chair and order a Corn on the Macabre (Butter Washed Vida Mezcal, sweetcorn, blackened lime demerara and lime luice).
The original plan before Avanti was to lunch around the corner at acclaimed Root Down in its converted filling station, but it was shut. Presumably named for the Beastie Boys’ sample rather than the Jimmy Smith original or perhaps just referencing this sustainable farm to table ethos, this is one cool restaurant. I later caught up with a slimmed down version of its small plate menu at its Denver Airport cafe – rootsy replacement for the horrors of the BA inflight tray.
Famed the world over for its classic Western clothing range, notably the original snap button shirt, the original LoDo outfitters is a photo-cluttered shrine to all the celebs who have worn (or at least bought) the gear. I couldn’t resist slipping into the cannabis motif cowboy blouse sported by Willie Nelson in the picture.
Denver would be Spliffing Willie’s kinda town, Colorado his kinda state. If you are 21 or older, you can now legally possess 1oz of marijuana in Colorado. You can enjoy many types of concentrates and edibles during your visit, bought from an array of dispensaries with names like Potco and Sacred Seed. If you wish to research further visit the Colorado Pot Guide. And if you really want an initiation into the almighty Pot, visit the city’s International Church of Cannabis, which opened in April.
My Brother’s Bar
The Beat writers would have approved – cannabis was their drug of choice back in the Fifties and Sixties. Kerouac, Ginsberg and Co were regular moochers around Denver primarily because partner in crime Neal Cassidy was raised in the city. His faint legacy remains in My Brother’s on the edge of Highlands, a bar without sign at 2376 15th St. Here you’ll find a framed letter Cassady sent to a friend from the Colorado Reformatory, where he was sent for car thieving. The ever hard-up Beat wrote: "I believe I owe (My Brother’s) about 3 or 4 dollars. If you happen to be in that vicinity, please drop in and pay it, will you?” The bar, arguably Colorado’s oldest, has recently changed hands but is unlikely to shed its old school vibe. Oh, and, of course, the beer range is ace. I’d recommend the Odell IPA.
It is a 30 minute light railway ride direct from Denver International Airport to Union Station – the stop and main Amtrak lines are immediately out back of the Great Hall.
Neil Sowerby flew to Denver from London Heathrow with British Airways; Norwegian are commencing twice-weekly direct flights from London Gatwick to Denver from September 16, 2017, priced from £179 each way.
Neil stayed at the (wonderful) Crawford Hotel – rooms from $249 per night. He also recommends contrasting style boutique hotels, also in LoDo., while at the stylish Kimpton Hotel Monaco Denver (where you can order a complimentary goldfish as a room companion) rooms are from $199 per night, while The quirky Maven offers rooms from $169 per night. It’s part of the newly renovated Dairy Block regeneration project, which also includes funky Te-Mex diner the Kachina Southwestern Grill.
The self-guided Denver Beer Trail is a good way to get your beer bearings in the city.